U.S. and Russia: The Talk Starts Here

There will be disagreements when President Obama visits Russia. But both Moscow and Washington know the relationship needs mending

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Display of force Topol-M ballistic missile drive through Moscow's Red Square in May. Russia is spending billions to modernize its military, depleted since the Cold War

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The Near Abroad

Just as Russia won't help much on Iran, Obama will likely tell Medvedev and Putin that America's ties with Ukraine and Georgia are based on shared values — they're both democracies — and strategic interests, including the protection of vital oil and gas supply routes. To underscore that point, Biden plans to visit Kiev and Tbilisi shortly after the President's trip to Moscow. The Vice President's visit, says Blacker, will "demonstrate to the Russians that we have equities in the region."

Officially, Moscow says it doesn't mind the U.S. having friends among the former Soviet satellites. But Russia draws the line at either Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. NATO's eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War — it now numbers three former Soviet Republics among its members, and most of the East European states that were once bound to Moscow in the Warsaw Pact — has been a dreadful blow to Russian pride. Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, believes a quiet agreement is possible: "Privately, Obama can tell the Russians that there are no plans to let these countries join NATO ... but [Russia] can help by making it clear [it] will not attack or destabilize any of [its] neighbors." Even a private agreement, though, would risk being interpreted as a betrayal by those in Georgia and Ukraine who seek the protection of NATO membership. Nor would it go down well in Congress, where there is broad bipartisan sympathy for both nations.

Back to the Future

When they met in London in April, Obama and Medvedev voiced an eagerness to conclude a new nuclear-weapons treaty before the end of the year, and the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which restricts the number of nuclear weapons both countries can deploy. This is an area where the two countries have a long record of negotiations: the two phases of START — the first ratified in 1991, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, and the second signed in 1993 — led to an 80% reduction in the worldwide number of strategic nukes. A follow-on treaty would probably trim the arsenals further. Experts think a deal is possible. "We're in a strange 'back to the future' stage of relations with Russia," says Strobe Talbott, a Russia expert, former Deputy Secretary of State and president of the Brookings Institution. "The one thing we can do business on is arms-control treaties."

Recently, however, Medvedev and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, have said nuclear-weapons reductions are possible only if the U.S. drops its plans to expand its missile-defense shield into Eastern Europe. The U.S. argues that such defenses, including installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, are necessary to protect the West from a possible missile strike by Iran. The Russians don't buy that. The shield, it thinks, is designed to give the U.S. an edge against Russia. "We don't believe that any plans for [missile defense] have anything to do with the 'Iranian threat,'" Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, told TIME recently. "For us ... it relates directly to [the U.S.'s] own capabilities in the area of strategic offensive arms."

Despite the bluster, there is room to maneuver. One option would be for the U.S. to collaborate with Russia on missile defense. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told Congress last month that the Pentagon is looking at Russian radar systems to help monitor Iranian missile tests. A U.S.-Russian partnership, he added, would signal to members of Iran's government "that they will face a concerted international front should they proceed down that path."

The Measure of the Men

There are plenty of other issues that Obama will want to cover with his hosts — Afghanistan, energy, North Korea, climate change and trade. But perhaps the President's greatest challenge during his trip will be to get the measure of Russia's two rulers. Bush famously looked into Putin's soul during their first meeting, in Slovenia in 2001, and "found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy," a judgment that quickly looked hopelessly naive. Obama will want to gauge the true nature of the Putin-Medvedev duopoly.

Many Kremlinologists in Washington say the meeting with Obama may be Medvedev's moment. The Russian President has long been seen as a cipher for Putin, his predecessor and patron. But some analysts think that the U.S. President's prestige may rub off on his Russian counterpart. There is a chance that Medvedev, 43, might stand for something new. He is the first of Russia's modern leaders never to have served as an official in the Soviet Union and has been showing some signs of independence from his former boss. "He's trying to carve out a space for himself, a different space from Putin," says Blacker.

Some Russians opposed to Putin believe a pointed display of respect by Obama could boost Medvedev. That, they say, would make it easier for the Russian President to distance himself from Putin's ironfisted policies. It may, of course, be wishful thinking to believe that Medvedev can ever really be his own man, much less that he can put aside the suspicion of decades and forge a real partnership with the U.S. But it's worth a try. For this truth hasn't changed since the end of the Cold War: when Russia and the U.S. don't get along, the rest of the world has every right to feel uneasy.

With reporting by Massimo Calabresi / Washington

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